Unlikely food and drink pairings: banana and caviar, whisky and coconut, cheeseburger and mescal, Midori and cold cuts all make sense
- Flavour combinations come in many forms, from the everyday sweet and sour to the more exotic, such as crisps dipped in hot chocolate
- Lorenzo Antinori, beverage manager of the Four Seasons Hong Kong, shares some of his more eclectic flavour combos
I am here to confess my love for weird and wonderful flavour combinations – the ones that keep me awake at night. Nothing excites me more than creating – and tasting – ugly delicious pairings that apparently shouldn’t go well together but work miraculously, harmoniously, in a “sacri-luscious” way.
Pairing food and wine is one of the greatest culinary pleasures, whether you are opening a bottle for a romantic dinner or having a glass with a bag of crisps. There is a huge variety of drinks and foods that can be joined together (amen for pineapple on pizza) that don’t necessarily have to be fancy or involve top-shelf ingredients.
From my many years of working in the food and beverage industry, recommending wine or spirits for various preparations, or simply coming up with new cocktails, I have come to believe in several essential truths about pairing.
These truths may not promise success – in fact, they might ruin friendships or have you expelled from your whisky club, but I hope they help you unlock a fun way to indulge. To quote the late Anthony Bourdain: “Our body is an amusement park”, so let’s enjoy the ride!
Go for good contrasts
This one is pretty straightforward but always fun: we’re talking salty with sweet or hot with cold. The bold contrasts are the definitive and most satisfying pairings. They are bulletproof and play around with the five tastes: sweet, bitter, salty, acidic and umami.
Try mescal with a cheeseburger (my favourite would be a Double Shack from Shake Shack). The smoke in the mescal pairs brilliantly with the salty, savoury meat, it’s almost like adding a barbecued element to the burger.
Fun fact: in the mescal industry, there is a practice of introducing savoury ingredients during the distillation process, such as chicken or duck breast (pechuga mescal being an example), which adds a unique character to the final spirit.
Another good contrast pairing is Midori and cold cuts. Yes, you read it right: Midori, the Japanese melon liqueur that dominated the cocktail scene in the dark 1980s and ’90s. This pairing works. And while it might sound a bit trashy, it’s not so far removed from the Italian tradition of eating melon with aged prosciutto. The sweetness of the Midori (serve it chilled or on ice) cuts through the saltiness of the cured ham, elevating its flavour.
You might want to also try a pack of Japanese Cheeza crackers (either the Camembert or Brie variety) with a glass of Tokaji, Sauternes or even a peach cider. The fruitiness and sweetness of the dessert wines cut through the richness and pungent flavour of the crackers. It’s not for the faint of heart (or holders of a French passport) but give it a try – it’s delicious.
Food and drinks, like everything in nature, are made from molecular compounds that determine their composition and flavour. The oak barrels used to age whisky (and other wines and spirits) feature a compound called oak lactones, which carry spicy and tropical notes such as vanilla, spices and caramel.
This compound is normally found in sunscreen products as well – so no wonder I love the pairing of whisky and coconut water for hot, sunny days. I prefer a young malt in this case, preferably from the Scottish Highlands, something that will express all its juiciness and lighter notes when combined with the coconut.
Back in the day, Russian tsars would feed bananas and caviar to their children for breakfast. In today’s world, that might not be the most affordable way to start the day, but it’s a pairing that works.
The briny flavour of the caviar contrasts well with the sweetness of the banana. If you feel like celebrating, try it with a banana daiquiri (I like mine with rhum agricole and fresh banana) and a dollop of caviar on your hand. Highly satisfying and highly Instagrammable.
Here, there are no rules – simply follow your heart. Rely on your “flavour memory” or childhood memories and let the party start. I pick, from my university days, the classic of crisps dipped in hot chocolate. These days, it’s better if it’s spiked with a shot of bourbon or cognac. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Lorenzo Antinori is the award-winning beverage manager of the Four Seasons Hong Kong.